SPU students take a break from technology

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You could have heard a pen drop at Seattle Pacific University this week.

But you might not have heard a computer booting up in the next dorm room. Or the muffled bleep of a cell phone breaking into a biology lecture. Or the plinking, buzzing and zapping burps out of video games.

Students declared this "Technology Sabbath" week at the Christian liberal-arts university, swearing off all things technological so they can concentrate on friendships and faith. About 300 students who live in the Marston/Watson and Moyer residence halls volunteered to use technology only for classwork and to spend their free time the old-fashioned way - talking with friends or attending worship services.

It hasn't been easy for this plugged-in generation to log off for a week. But it has been eye-opening.

Kayla Walker has been checking her e-mail only once a day - down from "every chance I get." Kristin Parchem has walked down the hall to talk with friends in person. Until now she never thought twice about e-mailing someone two doors away.

One group of women planned a get-together to cut out Valentines and catch up on dorm gossip. The men went to the gym to play dodge-ball instead of facing off against a techno foe in a video game. There will be a "live chat room" tomorrow where people will gather to debate relationship problems, faith questions or whatever else comes to mind.

"When I came here a year and a half ago, I didn't realize the impact technology has on people's relationships," said Chuck Straun, a residence-life coordinator for the two dormitories participating in the experiment.

Straun had read an article about students in a small Michigan college who had tried life unplugged and thought it might work at SPU.

"Students in Seattle are worse than students back in the Midwest where I came from," Straun said. "They're on ethernet or cable all the time. They're getting three or four hours sleep a night, and they aren't interacting with each other. Part of that is college, but part of it is playing video games and chatting with friends."

It hasn't always been easy for the students outside cyberspace.

"I don't even watch a lot of TV, but I pretty much have it on all the time as background noise," said Parchem, a junior from Seattle who is majoring in English. "The idea is for us to use the time we could be watching TV or e-mailing friends or just being online to get out of our room and be with people. But it's also been a time to be quiet with God or read the Bible."

Walker, a senior, doesn't have a cell phone or a television in her room, but she found access to the Internet so easy that she hadn't talked with her best friend back home in Oregon since Christmas.

"I called her and we talked for two hours," Walker said. "We e-mail each other every day, and it's really convenient. But I got to thinking friendships shouldn't be convenient and casual like that. We always promised we wouldn't lose touch, but I think we were."

Sally Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2248 or smacdonald@seattletimes.com.